Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 2006-07 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Five starters return from last year's Big 12 co-champion Kansas team. But will those same five be good enough to be starters again this season? Oh, decisions, decisions for fourth-year coach Bill Self.
"I think you'll see a similar team to what we had last year, but I'm not sure all the faces will be the same," said Self, the reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year.
In addition to returning their starting lineup, the Jayhawks welcome back 10 letter-winners, 94.1 percent of their blocked shots, 85.8 percent of their steals, 85.2 percent of their scoring, 85.0 percent of their rebounding and 79.5 percent of their total minutes played from a team that went 25-8 overall (22-4 to close the season) and 13-3 in the Big 12.
While most coaches struggle to find the right combination, Self will have the luxury of multiple combinations.Despite basking in all this sunshine, a dark cloud hovers above these Jayhawks. Junior backup guard Jeremy Case is the only player on this year's roster who has played in an NCAA Tournament game KU has won (in 2004).
Kansas has failed to survive the first round of the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, having been stung by two killer Bs -- the Bucknell Bison (64-63) and Bradley Braves (77-73). Who possibly lies in the wait for this year's first round? The Belmont Bruins? The Butler Bulldogs?
Three years ago, returning KU players also were stung when Roy Williams returned home to coach North Carolina. Though the 2003-04 Jayhawks finished just one step shy of the Final Four in Self's inaugural season, standout freshman forward David Padgett transferred to Louisville. Self eventually endured discontentment the following season.
A senior-laden 2004-05 team slowly unraveled. Seniors Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Michael Lee gave their all. But senior Keith Langford and sophomore J.R. Giddens certainly did not. (Giddens has since transferred to New Mexico.) The Jayhawks started fast that year (14-0; 20-1), but closed the season by losing six of their final nine games.
The pieces slowly started to fit last year, with the top seven contributors being Self's recruits. An uncommonly young team struggled at first, losses piled up and some lengthy streaks inside a storied program suddenly ended.
KU began with a 3-4 record, the worst start to a season since the 11-15 team of 1971-72. After winning seven straight to climb to 10-4, the Jayhawks lost 59-55 to Kansas State in Lawrence, snapping a 31-game winning streak against the Wildcats and marking the first time KU lost its conference home opener since 1983.
Two days later at Missouri came an 89-86 overtime loss, during which KU blew a seven-point lead with 39.4 seconds remaining in regulation. Overtime became necessary when senior forward Christian Moody missed two free throws with 0.4 left.
Before facing Missouri, the Jayhawks had lost to Arkansas by one, Nevada by two, Saint Joseph's by three and Kansas State by four.
"We've had tougher losses probably than anyone in America," Self said that night in Columbia.
Kansas players were learning some lessons, albeit the hard way. Then came the rewards.
The Jayhawks won 10 straight after Missouri and 15 of their next 16. In the process, they became conference co-champs and won the Big 12 Tournament with an impressive 80-68 victory against Texas in Dallas.
From January to March last season, Self's previously unbridled group gradually learned to calm itself. Players allowed their natural abilities to come to the forefront while better understanding Self's demands.
But a few hours before tip-off against Bradley in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Self saw a team that had noticeably become tight.
"You could tell immediately," Self said. "All that confidence they had built had disappeared."
The No. 4-seeded Jayhawks battled back from a 13-point deficit after halftime against No. 13-seeded Bradley, which had taken a 10-point lead into intermission thanks to a half-court bank shot. Kansas eventually was done in by turnovers and fouls. (Bradley continued to advance, upsetting Pittsburgh in the second round to get to the Sweet 16, where the Braves lost to top-seeded Memphis.)
"I don't want them to be embarrassed by what happened. I really don't," Self said of his players. "We took three freshmen and two sophomores who were in a tough situation and got beat by a good team that day. They played their butts off the last three months of the season and picked an inopportune time to not play very well. They have nothing to be embarrassed about."
When it comes to winning national championships, history hasn't been kind to the Jayhawks. Though one of the top college basketball programs of all time, KU struggles to finish the job. The school has been to 12 Final Fours (fifth all-time), yet has won just two national titles (1952 and 1988).
By today's standards, success is based solely on how a team performs in the NCAA Tournament, not in the previous 30 or so games that got a team to that point.
"Now our players should understand better than ever that at Kansas, winning the league championship is great, winning the conference tournament is great, but people are still going to talk about what you do in middle or late March a lot more than they do during the conference season," Self said.
Though patience is hardly a virtue among KU fanatics, last year's team at least was cut some slack after its 3-4 start. This season, expectations will be full-throttle from beginning to end.
"We got off to such a bad start that in some weird way it lowered the expectations and took some pressure of our young guys," Self said. "This year we need to operate under some pressure conditions. That will make us a better team and prepare us for the [NCAA] Tournament.
"Last year, we only felt pressure maybe one time besides the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments and that was playing at Texas [an 88-50 loss Feb. 25] where we felt like we had to win in order to win the league, and we didn't perform very well. All the other times we won, nobody really expected us to. We need to perform where guys understand how to operate better under pressure conditions."
The Jayhawks are still young, but now have some experience. And now, they're being touted among the nation's elite. Self wants to keep those feelings in check.
"We talk about those things all the time," Self said. "People have these guys ranked so high [in the preseason]. Usually teams that are ranked high have won games in the tournament the year before. They've got us ranked up with a Florida team that won six [NCAA Tournament] games last year. We won zero."
With no seniors, the KU roster remains one of the nation's youngest.
Junior guard Russell Robinson and junior center Sasha Kaun figure to be starters again. Then again, maybe not.
Junior center C.J. Giles and junior forward Darnell Jackson figure to be strong off the bench. Then again, maybe not.
"C.J. is talented enough to be a starter and Darnell has played well enough to be a starter," Self said.
Last year's fab freshmen are now sophomores and each certainly figures to start -- wingman Brandon Rush, guard Mario Chalmers and point forward Julian Wright.
"We do not have a guy who is going to average 20 points," Self said. "We need to be a team with balance because we have a lot of guys who can get the ball in the basket. I think that our headliners, even though a lot of people are going to look to a certain group of guys, are going to be the entire team. I see this team having great balance."
Those aforementioned seven players averaged at least 15.3 minutes per game last year, but they will be pushed by new blood.
If freshman forward Darrell Arthur and freshman guard Sherron Collins play to their capabilities and improve at the same rate as Rush, Chalmers and Wright did last season, Self could become a mad scientist with all the possible combinations.
"We've got some options," understated Self.
Last year's starting lineup wound up consisting of two sophomores and three freshmen. This year's lineup could end up being three sophomores and two freshmen.
It's all wait-and-see for Self. No hurry. With plenty of talent and plenty of depth to go around, team chemistry will be vital -- as is often the case.
"I don't know how it's going to play out," Self said. "Who starts won't necessarily be our most talented guys. We'll try to play those who play best together."
How quickly Arthur and Collins progress is pretty much up to Arthur and Collins. The talent unquestionably is there. But will they absorb instruction, or repel it?
"Sherron and Darrell can bring a whole new approach where they can be the sixth and seventh men, or they can be second and third guys, depending how quickly they come around," Self said. "Those guys both have a chance to play major minutes early and possibly even unseat a guy or two if they play to their ability."
Last year's impressive freshman act will be tough to follow.
When the Jayhawks overcame a 16-point, second-half deficit to beat Oklahoma 59-58 in Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 5 last season, Self proclaimed afterward his freshmen officially no longer were freshmen.
Why do some freshmen progress more quickly than others?
"I think a lot of it might be leaving everything checked in at the dorm when they get on campus," Self said. "Last year, they just totally committed themselves to the program and to the staff.
"A lot of freshmen think they know, but the smartest freshmen I've coached know that they don't know. That's what we had last year. We had guys who admitted, 'Hey, we really don't know. Show us.' Hopefully, this group will do the same thing."
In some ways, Self hopes this year's team is no different than last year.
"I think the key is for us to have the same mindset we did last year," Self said. "We were very young, expectations weren't quite as high and we were very unproven. To be hungry, to understand that chemistry and liking each other are important to us and are the keys to our success. Last year, we were all pulling in the same direction. In order for us to have a great season this year, even though we do have talent returning, we have to have the same mindset."
PG Russell Robinson (6-1, 196 lbs., JR, #3, 9.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.3 spg, 28.5 mpg, .371 FG, .322 3PT, .742 FT, Rice HS/New York, N.Y.)
The rock of the team, Robinson helped take KU to a higher level last season through his unselfish play at the point. His defense was suffocating and his toughness was infectious. He took care of the ball (assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.08) and also took it away (2.3 steals per game, third in the Big 12 and 35th nationally). Expect more of the same from this street-tough, under-exposed kid from New York City.
"We may have had some guys make all-conference ahead of Russell, but everybody in our gym knows Russell was our most valuable player last year," Self said. "He's a quiet leader, but has great work habits. He's fearless. He's our best defender. We always put him on the other team's best player. He's a guy who helped the team figure out a way to win, in whatever way, shape or form. He wasn't a great shooter in terms of percentage, but he always seemed to make big shots."
Robinson elevated his play in the postseason. In three Big 12 Tournament games, he scored 32 points and handed out 22 assists. In the NCAA Tournament's first round against Bradley, he scored 18 points. That tied for Robinson's second-highest scoring night of the season. In January, he scored a personal-best 24 at Texas A&M.
Robinson may not be chosen all-conference because he's surrounded by so many talented teammates, but he's a lock for one honor. Robinson was chosen to the Big 12's All-Defensive team, and with Self poised to turn up the defensive heat this season, Robinson's steals total should rise accordingly.
SG Mario Chalmers (6-1, 182 lbs., SO, #15, 11.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.7 spg, 26.0 mpg, .445 FG, .375 3PT, .788 FT, Bartlett HS/Anchorage, Alaska)
The son of KU director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers, Mario finished last season strong, starting 21 of the last 22 games and averaging 14.3 points in conference play. He was voted most outstanding player of the Big 12 Tournament, averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds in three games, and also was chosen to the Big 12 all-rookie and all-defensive teams. All this came after a rugged start.
Chalmers' steady improvement directly correlated with Robinson taking over at point guard, which allowed Chalmers to play on the wing.
"That took some pressure off him," Self said. "He's got some point-guard skills, but he's a natural playmaker and a natural shooter, and I think that took a lot of pressure off him and he certainly responded great."
Chalmers broke into uncharted territory as the season progressed. He became only the second player in the Big 12's 10-year history to earn league player-of-the-week honors (Oklahoma's Drew Lavender was the first (in 2003-04) and was also the first freshman to lead the league in steals. His 89 steals set Kansas and Big 12 freshman records, and his average of 2.7 per game was 14th in Division I.
Chalmers was a ball-hawk, but he could also get the ball in the hole. He reached double figures 20 times, including 14 of his last 16 games, and he was second on the team in three-pointers made (48).
Chalmers scored 20 or more points five times, with a high of 23 against Iowa State and 22 against Missouri. Four of those 20-points plus games came in Big 12 play.
"He had a great conference season," Self said. "He probably progressed the most of all our first-year players, with Julian close behind. Brandon started out ahead of all those guys, but by the end of the year I think Mario and Julian were at about the same level as Brandon."
SF Brandon Rush (6-6, 212 lbs., SO, #25, 13.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 31.7 mpg, .474 FG, .472 3PT, .761 FT, Mount Zion Academy/Mount Zion, N.C.)
Rush was a late arrival to the program and figures to be an early departure for the NBA. The Jayhawks intend to enjoy his talent as long as he sticks around, though Rush has not formally declared this is his final season.
"He hasn't come out and said he's positively going to do this or that," Self said. "If he does what he's supposed to do and achieves what he's capable of achieving as a player, I would anticipate there being a great chance of this being his last year here."
Rush's impact was immediate. He became the first freshman in KU history to lead the team in scoring, rebounding and minutes played. While fellow freshman standouts Chalmers and Wright struggled at first, Rush immediately became the team's focal point.
Rush was as good as advertised last year. Trouble is, Rush is better than he realizes.
"My biggest frustration with him last year was when he deferred to his teammates rather than taking things upon himself," Self said. "He needs to be the guy to take over games in key possessions, making sure he takes the shot or creates something. Unfortunately, for a leading scorer, he thought 'pass-first' way too much at the end of the game."
Rush was a no-brainer for Big 12 Freshman of the Year and was tabbed USBWA District VI Player of the Year. He was the first freshman in Big 12 history to earn first-team all-conference honors.
Rush saved some of his better efforts for spotlight games. In a nationally televised game against Kentucky in Allen Fieldhouse, Rush had 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. In one two-game span in Big 12 play, Rush racked up consecutive double-doubles against Iowa State (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Texas Tech (24, 11).
When the 2005-06 school year began, Rush wasn't sure he would be academically eligible. He responded by earning a spot on the Big 12 honor roll last fall.
PF Julian Wright (6-8, 218 lbs., SO, #30, 8.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 20.1 mpg, .564 FG, .548 FT, Homewood-Flossmoor HS/Chicago Heights, Ill.)
Wright is the most multi-talented player on an extremely multi-talented team. His confidence grew as the season progressed, as did his contribution after joining the starting lineup the second half of the season. Wright had moments of domination with his passing and leaping ability. A Big 12 all-rookie selection, Wright led KU six times in scoring and seven times in rebounding. He also was chosen to the Big 12 All-Tournament team. His potential seems unlimited.
"Julian is a guy who can do about as many things as any guy out there," Self said. "He can be a very good rebounder. He's very athletic. He can defend a guard. He can defend a big guy. But the thing he does better than anything else is he can pass the ball so well. He's so unselfish and guys love playing with him because he's such a good passer. He needs to work to improve his [shooting] stroke."
That isn't to suggest Wright can't put the ball in the hole. He led Kansas regulars in field-goal percentage and reached double figures 14 times, with a high of 20 against Baylor.
Wright was a stat sheet stuffer. He was fourth on the team in scoring, second in blocked shots (42), third in steals (31), second in offensive rebounds (53) and third in defensive rebounds.
C Sasha Kaun (6-11, 246 lbs., JR, #24, 8.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 19.3 mpg, .562 FG, .535 FT, Florida Air Academy/Melbourne, Fla.)
Kaun is a big target underneath who needs to become more consistent and must learn how to finish when he gets the ball down low. He has the physical makeup to be dominant inside, especially with so few quality big men in college ball.
"Hopefully he and C.J. can give us a legitimate low-post presence and a legitimate low-post scorer," Self said. "Collectively, they averaged about 14 points a game. I certainly hope that can go up this year. I think that was one of the biggest knocks on our team was consistent low-post scoring."
Kaun gave tantalizing glimpses of his offensive game last season, though not much of it came against Big 12 competition. He actually led the Jayhawks in scoring four times, with a career-high 25 against Idaho State and 23 against Fort Hays State. He did come up with 16 points against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament.
Defensively, Kaun more than doubled his blocked shot total from the season before (36). He finished 10th in the league in blocks per game.
Kaun, an Academic All-Big 12 first-team selection, was given the Clyde Lovellette Most Improved Player award in a vote of his teammates.
F Darrell Arthur (6-9, 221 lbs., FR, #00, 17.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 6.0 bpg, South Oak Cliff HS/Dallas, Texas)
For the second straight year, Self's recruiting persistence hooked him a whale. Rush officially arrived shortly after school started in 2005. Arthur committed in May. He woke up Monday morning ready to sign with Baylor, slept on it, and then woke up Tuesday wanting to sign with the Jayhawks.
"Playing for Kansas came to me in a dream," Arthur told the Kansas City Star the day he signed. "It was like me playing in a uniform, playing in a game, with all the players -- Marion, Julian and Brandon. It seemed like the right school."
Several other schools sought Arthur, including North Carolina, Connecticut, Texas, LSU, Indiana, Oklahoma, Arizona and hometown SMU. Arthur said Kansas and Baylor endured in the end because Self and Baylor coach Scott Drew never wavered in their recruitment.
Self considers Arthur the best power forward he has ever recruited.
"He's an athletic guy who's 6-9 and can shoot the basketball," Self said. "He should be pretty valuable to us."
Arthur arrived at 221 pounds, but hoped to add 10-12 pounds by November. Arthur strutted his stuff during summer pickup games with his new teammates and immediately felt at ease.
"In high school, when we had open gym, we never got to play against talent like this," Arthur told the Star. "I used to get bored. But when it's so competitive like this, you can't help but respond to it."
G Sherron Collins (5-11, 190 lbs., FR, #4, 33.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 10.0 apg, Crane HS/Chicago, Ill.)
Rated as the second-best high school point guard in the country, this lightning bolt could kick the already fleet-footed Jayhawks into a higher gear, offensively and defensively.
During an unofficial visit to Kansas last October, Collins attended the Jayhawks' opening practice extravaganza "Late Night in the Phog," an experience he described as "breathtaking." Collins was so overwhelmed by the atmosphere, he cancelled trips to Illinois and Iowa and informed Self of his decision that same weekend.
It marked the third time in two years that Self lured a prominent recruit away from Illinois, where he coached before coming to Lawrence. The previous year, Rush and Wright chose Self over his successor with the Fighting Illini, coach Bruce Webber. Self has compared Collins to Dee Brown, a former All-American whom Self coached at Illinois.
"I know Sherron is talented enough. He's going to play an awful lot of minutes if he does what he's capable of doing," Self said. "He's a point guard who can score. He and Shady [Arthur] both can impact a program as starters, or maybe as guys off the bench. Sometimes it's good for a freshman not to start. Sometimes it's good for them to start."
F Darnell Jackson (6-9, 247 lbs., JR, #32, 6.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 15.3 mpg, .505 FG, .769 FT, Midwest City HS/Oklahoma City, Okla.)
Jackson is coming off an extremely emotional sophomore season. His year of tumult began when his grandmother and mother were in a serious car accident in Las Vegas in the summer of 2005. His grandmother was killed and his mother seriously injured. Jackson was also forced to sit out the first nine games under NCAA compliance because he accepted impermissible benefits from a longtime family friend who was a Kansas booster.
Despite all the hardship, Jackson still finished as the team's third leading rebounder. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in conference play.
"Some personal things have kept him from probably progressing even more," Self said. "He's been an absolute joy. I just believe in him. He's a great kid with a great smile. Knowing he hadn't played basketball very long, I just always thought he had really good skills. He's got some things that certainly can make a team a lot better. He may be a little bit further along than I thought he might be at this stage."
C C.J. Giles (6-10, 235 lbs., JR, #33, 6.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 16.9 mpg, .506 FG, .588 FT, Rainier Beach HS/Seattle, Wash.)
Two summers ago, pro scouts were raving about Giles' potential during the USA Basketball men's under-21 national team trials, proclaiming him one of the most talented players there. But Giles was injured early and left the tryout. And he was a no-show too many times last season.
Long and lanky, Giles has marvelous athleticism in blocking and altering shots. Giles also has shown some offensive ability, and that's where Self wants Giles to have a presence this season, along with fellow center Kaun. Giles could be a starter, but won't get there unless he becomes more consistent and plays under more control (dumb fouls are the bane of his existence).
Giles had surgery in mid-June to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb after injuring it while dunking. He's expected to be ready for the start of the season.
G Jeremy Case (6-1, 170 lbs., JR, #10, 2.5 ppg, 0.5 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.3 spg, 5.5 mpg, .420 FG, .333 3PT, 1.000 FT, McAlester HS/McAlester, Okla.)
Jeremy is the son of Eastern Oklahoma State College coach Win Case, who was a teammate of Self's at Oklahoma State. Jeremy is the team's best three-point shooter.
"When he gets [his shot] going, it's something to see," Self said. "He's our best outside shooter. There's no doubt about that. He gives us the type of depth you really like to have at guard."
Not that Case was utilized that often last season. Still, the Academic All-Big 12 first team pick made his presence felt. He led KU in pro-rated points per game (18.5).
G Rodrick Stewart (6-4, 201 lbs., JR, #5, 0.7 ppg, 0.4 rpg, 0.2 apg, 3.2 mpg, .364 FG, .000 3PT, .667 FT, Rainier Beach HS/Seattle, Wash., and USC)
Three years ago, this transfer played alongside twin brother Lodrick during their freshman seasons at Southern California. When Rodrick first came to KU, he was expected to see significant playing time. However, a steady stream of superb incoming talent has pushed Stewart toward the end of the Jayhawks' bench.
G Brady Morningstar (6-3, 170 lbs., FR, #12, 22.0 ppg, Free State HS/Lawrence, Kansas,
and New Hampton, Prep/New Hampton, N.H.)
The son of former KU player Roger Morningstar (1974-75), Morningstar was the Sunflower League Player of the Year at Lawrence Free State High School in 2005 and played last season at New Hampton (N.H.) Prep School, where he averaged 22 points and was chosen his team's most valuable player. He chose KU over West Virginia, Tennessee, TCU, Northern Illinois and others.
"He definitely has a chance to be in the mix and maybe be in the rotation. It just depends on how quickly he picks things up," Self said. "But I think he's a pretty talented guy. He's athletic and a good shooter. He can do the simple things and make other things easier for everybody else."
G-Brennan Bechard (6-0, 183 lbs., SO, #11, 8.9 mpg, .409 3PT, Lawrence HS/Lawrence, Kansas, and Barton County CC/Great Bend, Kansas)
A local high school product invited to walk-on, Bechard is a former prep rival of Morningstar.
Bechard is a solid outside shooter. His father Ray is in his ninth season as the Jayhawks' volleyball coach, and his sister Ashley, is a former standout volleyball player (2001-04) at KU.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Jayhawks led the nation in field-goal percentage defense last season, allowing opponents to shoot just .370 from the field. Self plans to make the defense even better. That's a scary notion for KU's opponents.
"We may pressure more," Self said. "Hopefully we can create a little bit more havoc with our athletic ability and depth. Last year, we became a very good defensive team and I believe that our first-shot defense was the best in America. We also became a very active team that was ranked high nationally (ninth) in steals. Not very often do you have both of those, yet still creating havoc."
Although KU was decent at rebounding margin, ranking 20th (+5.4), Self was not pleased.
"We must become a better rebounding team. That's one area where we were average, at best," Self said. "We weren't near the shot-blocking team or the rebounding team that we could potentially become."
Two areas where Kansas struggled a year ago were turnovers and free-throw shooting. Out of 326 Division I teams, the Jayhawks ranked 228th in turnovers (15.6) and 226th in free-throw shooting (67.2 percent). Both numbers figure to improve significantly this year.
No way will this current roster exhaust its collegiate eligibility. The gravitational pull of the NBA eventually will take command. Rush, Wright, Chalmers, Arthur, Collins and Giles already have pro scouts interested.
"Our goal every year is to win the league, go undefeated at home, play great in March and have the chance to go deep in the [NCAA] tournament. Those goals certainly won't change," Self said. "I do think potentially this team has the chance to be maybe the most talented and certainly the deepest team I've had. If everybody stays healthy and can play to their talent level, I would be disappointed if this was not a very good season."
Oklahoma State first-year coach Sean Sutton certainly isn't tempering his thoughts on the Jayhawks. "Oh, they're going to be terrific," Sutton said. "They could win it all."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).